BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders warned Moscow they were ready exercise their combined muscle over the long haul in a confrontation with an economically wounded Russia if President Vladimir Putin refused to pull back from Ukraine.
“We must go beyond being reactive and defensive. As Europeans we must regain our self-confidence and realise our own strengths,” said Donald Tusk, the former Polish premier who chaired a brief EU summit in Brussels on Thursday.
In comments that were part warning to Russia, where falling oil prices and Western trade sanctions have brought financial havoc, and part exhortation to an EU bloc divided between hawks and doves, Tusk said a united European front was vital.
“It is obvious we will not find a long-term perspective for Ukraine without an adequate, consistent and united European strategy towards Russia,” he added, his remarks bringing a briskly opinionated new style to the first such meeting he has chaired as president of the leaders’ European Council.
“Today we are maybe not too optimistic. But we have to be realistic, not optimistic.”
Meeting on a day when Putin mounted a wordy defence of policies on Ukraine and the economy, then leaders of the 28 EU states conferred on how to handle their giant eastern neighbour longer term after a year of crisis and mutual trade sanctions that have brought warnings of a return to Cold War.
Some in the EU have said they should switch their focus away from supporting Ukraine to seeking a detente with Moscow. That might be in the longer term interests of businesses, which have suffered loss of trade and fear a spillover from the Russian financial crisis.
But for all their differences in attitudes to Russia, leaders made clear their determination to stick together as they have over the past year, while offering Putin both the threat of stick and the carrot of mutually beneficial commerce.
They agreed to keep up financial aid to help Ukraine carry out reforms to its post-Soviet political and economic systems.
“Russia is today our strategic problem, not Ukraine,” said Tusk, who as Polish prime minister was among the hawks from Moscow’s former communist satellites who pushed for sanctions.
“The biggest challenge today is the Russian approach, not only to Ukraine but also to the EU.”
Having enacted some previously agreed new sanctions on Thursday, they made no move to further escalate measures against Moscow, and indeed made clear that, like the United States, they were ready to ease them if they concluded Putin was implementing a peace deal made with Ukraine at Minsk in September.
“The door is always open if Russia changes its behaviour,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron. “If it takes Russian troops out of Ukraine, and it obeys all the strictures of the Minsk agreement, these sanctions can go.”